Nearly a quarter century ago, French critic Roland Barthes commented on the move away from obvious and explicit imagery: He considered the embrace of "obtuse meaning" an exciting alternative to pure, upright, secant and legal prose because, he wrote, "it opens the field of meaning totally, that is, infinitely."
With his novel "Daimon," newly translated by Sarah Arvio, Abel Posse enthusiastically rejects what Barthes termed restrictive "perpendicular narrative." Indeed, his book may be said to represent an excessive commitment to curved fiction.
As if that were not enough, the book also springs from the postwar Latin American literary boom, where the phantasmagoric is as commonplace as the ordinary. Posse attempts to create what novelist Alejo Carpentier called \o7 lo real maravilloso\f7 , the marvelously real--a world unencumbered by the mundane constraints of time and place. Souls traverse centuries; ancient ruins suddenly emit exquisite, haunting music; gender blurs to insignificance; instruments of torture utter speech. Such literary elements are the ingredients of a fiction born from a people who suffer. Unlike European surrealism, which consciously manipulates and juxtaposes discordant imagery, the Latin American genre weaves surreal imagery into everyday life.
Posse's book, then, is a marriage between Barthes' idea of non-linear storytelling and Carpentier's insights into the marvelously real. It is an appealing and ambitious project. At its best, the book pulls literary convention inside out. It would be a major literary achievement to actually orchestrate the union of magical realism with obtuse meaning.
"Daimon," unfortunately, falls short.
Where it does somewhat succeed is in its clever treatment of the tragedy and pathos of a continent. The book's title is the ancient Greek term for an evil spirit or the supernatural power of fate. Here that demonic force is embodied by--in fact, literally lives within--the infamous 16th-Century Spanish conquistador, Lope De Aguirre. He is an inviting subject (Werner Herzog filmed his own version of the story as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God"). While on an expedition in search of El Dorado, the mythical kingdom of gold, Aguirre went berserk. Blinded by bizarre imperialist visions and lost in the middle of the Amazon jungle, he brutally tortured and murdered his superior officers, most members of the expedition, even his own daughter, and then, surrounded by a court of screeching monkeys and rotting corpses, crowned himself emperor of all the eye could see and declared war on the Spanish monarch.
Posse has structured the book around thematic elements of magic and witchcraft. For example, he divides his text into 10 chapters named for arcana of the Tarot. Perhaps he hopes to imbue his tale with an occult edge--a reasonable supposition given the story's recurring references to alchemy. Posse concocts a vision of history as sorcery, a history in which black magic and its close cousin, Satanism, play key roles.
Posse's Aguirre serves as a symbol of the black magic visited upon South America by Europeans. Lost in the fecund dampness of the American jungle (where Inca myth tells us that darkness, chaos and confusion hide from the sun), our baroque protagonist succumbs to the "false solace of madness" and is horribly murdered by his own men. But his corporal demise only serves as a departure point for Posse, who resurrects Aguirre's wretched spirit to wander through the sad unfolding of post-Conquest history.
In actuality, the psychopathic Aguirre drifted on a raft down the Amazon. In "Daimon" he drifts, as "his own ghost's ghost," down the infected corridors of Latin American history, from the early days of colonialism to the modern era. He lives beyond the grave, bringing his twisted and posthumous perspective to bear on a horror-scope of atrocities committed over five centuries against a whole continent and its people. Painted as a Satanist, an incestuous necrophiliac and a tyrant, he becomes Posse's symbol of Euro-lunacy.
The result is often entertaining. In one chapter, "Tarot III: The Empress," we are taken to the land of the Amazons, where superior women subjugate Aguirre and his loutish men through elaborate and loving but also mind-numbing erotic rituals. In "Tarot XV: The Devil," Aguirre's marauding but inept explorers rout the peaceful Jomocohuicas, strange humanoids who survive "on the fragrance of plants and flowers." When the spirits of the dead troop finally discover El Dorado, they become lost in their own "gilded trances," traveling an infinite desert of gold dust where the water is bitter, vegetables and fruit nonexistent, and lizard tails the only available protein.
While at times droll and conceptually intoxicating, the book bogs down under the weight of its own stylistic pretensions. Eventually, it begins to read as though scraps of Conrad, Machado De Assis, Neruda, Italo Calvino and Garcia Marquez were all thrown into a literary blender. There are better examples of the genre--including Posse's own award-winning "Dogs of Paradise." In the end, there is too much style and not enough depth or substance here.
If Posse hoped this literary treatment of 500 years of domination would break history's mythic and hypnotic spell, he was mistaken. As Proust wrote, "There is no great difference between the memory of a dream and the memory of reality." For Latin Americans, there is no great difference between the images of history and the images of myth.
"Daimon" is a gallant but contrived effort to bridge a difference that doesn't really exist.